His eyes never left mine. Rimmed with tears that had already been shed a thousand times, they yearned to share his story, for me to listen, to hear, to feel. “Pay close attention” they pleaded as deeply as his accented words. “You will not be sorry you did.” I could feel the current of emotion in him, rising like a tide. “It started in Poland. I was born in 1937. My brother in 1933. I was two years old when they took my father away.”
We had just been introduced, barely having said hello. I was a first time guest at his son’s home with my family for a holiday dinner for Sukkot. Seven children and eight adults warmed the house like a nice glass of Merlot . The children were jumping and screaming. One was playing the drums. A massive pillow fight was in the works as the adults chatted merrily without care. Over the noise, our friend Tim introduced us. “This is my father Ben. He has an amazing story to share.” “Dad, this is my friend. She is a writer.”
His focus changed from light to locked. “You are writer?”
I demurred. “Not really. I have always written stories, essays and such, but no, not really.”
But both Tim and my husband would not allow my honest assessment of inexperience and pumped up my resume and his confidence in my story telling abilities.
“Come.” His intensity guided me from the others as if his hand were on my shoulder leading the way. I could only follow. He was a small man but he carried a heavy story. It walked with us like a third person.
He motioned toward the dining room table and we sat down. I was happy for my glass of wine. It gave me a moment or two of distraction away from his intense need. There was no small talk or preamble.
“Do you know much of Poland in the late 1930’s?”
I really did not. My knowledge of my own history is embarrassingly inadequate. He explained how Poland was divided by Hitler and Stalin and split between Russia and Germany. His family lived on the Russian side. They had some means, he explained, his father was an educated man, an ecologist of some sort. As communist Russia overtook Poland, they “nationalized” the middle and upper class families living there, taking their homes, lands and wealth and sending them off to Siberia.
“They sent your family to Siberia?” I asked stunned and amazed. Siberia was, well, Siberia.
“Yes, my father first and then they came for my mother, my brother and me.”
“So at least you were together.” I felt some small comfort that at least there was that.
“No. My mother, brother and I were sent away to another part where we lived in spaces dug in the ground with around 2,000 others. My mother was put to work as a lumberjack while my brother and I were left there alone with nothing.”
“But you were only seven and two?”
I took a big gulp of wine. How do you even look at someone who has been through so much pain? By asking a safe, clinical question. “They did this to all the Jewish people of Poland?”
“No, they did it to every one of means.”
I nodded. I had a hundred questions. I could never imagine living in my bubbled suburban world that my family could be ripped from their home and then ripped from their loved ones. I felt a tear in my heart. I wanted him to go on. I needed to know about how they survived each day, but I also wanted to know about the home they left. What it looked like, and tasted like. The smells and sights, what their lives were really like in Poland in 1939 before the world turned on its head and then closed its eyes.
We were interrupted by Tamara, my friend, Tim’s wife, who walked in I’m sure to save me. We had, after-all, just arrived for a holiday dinner. She gently put her arm around her father-law. “Come. You can’t tell her the whole story tonight.” She kindly teased him. You could see the love and high regard she held him in. Ben smiled and politely acquiesced to social graces. “Of course.”
We both stood to join the party, but Ben still looked to hold my eye and my attention. “I hope for us to meet again so I can tell you more. That is barely a beginning.”
“Me too.” I meant it. I was sucked in to his story – to him, to his history and his almost desperate, palpable need to divulge and honor that history. But I knew, ultimately, that he wanted someone to put his past on paper, to make it live and breathe again. Just because I was intrigued by him – by his eyes and his hands, by his words and intensity, that didn’t mean I could write it for him. That didn’t mean that I could make the bored and desensitized world of today stop for a moment and remember.